Looking for Grace in All the Write Places

Article excerpt

From Flannery O'Connor to Ron Hansen, Catholic writers have crafted their own literary tradition by delighting and enlightening readers. Patrick McCormick picks the best of the best.

WHEN ASKED ABOUT "GROWING UP CATHOLIC," most of us point immediately to our eight to 12 years of parochial education (or CCD) or relate anecdotes about the priests and nuns of St. Vincent's or St. Agatha s Parish. Still, I wonder if it wouldn't occasionally be a bit more interesting (and revealing) to offer a list of the Catholic novelists we have been introduced to along the way. What Catholic storytellers have shaped or sparked our budding imaginations and challenged us to think about questions of sin and grace in ways that religion class or Sunday homilies rarely did?

And what made them (and by their influence, us) "Catholic"?

An earlier generation of Catholics savored George Bernanos' The Diary of a Country Priest; Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited; Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness and The Last Hurrah; Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair; as well as Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Arises Must Converge. They also tasted Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, and The Second Coming, along with J.F. Powers' Morte d'Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green. And alongside such substantial entrees they likewise sampled and enjoyed the lighter and more popular fare of Henry Morton Robinson's The Cardinal, Morris West's The Devil's Advocate and The Shoes of the Fisherman, as well as a number of bestsellers by the likes of Thomas B. Costain and Taylor Caldwell.

Still, as rich as this diet was, it was not always an easy thing being a "Catholic" novelist. Writers with serious literary aspirations often had to forge their fiction between the rock of a church as likely to censure creativity as to reward it and the hard place of a modern secular audience's suspicious of "religious" fiction, particularly when written by members of an authoritarian and seemingly doctrinaire church.

In the middle 1950s, Pope Pius XII's Holy Office was still in the business of condemning works like Greene's The Power and the Glory (which Pope Paul VI later confessed to the author he had very much enjoyed reading). And across the Atlantic not a few American critics wondered aloud if any faithful Catholic author was capable of genuine literary creativity, while others suggested that the interests of Catholic writers were insular and parochial, far too narrowly focused on the particularities of their own ecclesiastical and immigrant experience.

Curiously enough, although American moviemakers were always turning to the costume and clerics of Catholicism for their "religious" iconography, American literature usually expected Catholic writers to use the service entrance. In time, however, authors like Flannery O'Connor, J.F. Powers, and Walker Percy showed American audiences that being a Catholic novelist wasn't an oxymoron but a vocation.

As O'Connor once noted, "When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist."

Four decades after O'Connor made that comment, Catholic fiction continues to flourish in this country, though not without some challenges and difficulties. Percy, O'Connor, and Powers, as well as the recently deceased Andre Dubus, have been replaced by Mary Gordon, Ron Hansen, Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, Louise Erdrich, Jon Hassler, Annie Dillard, William Kennedy, Alice McDermott, Anna Quindlen, Richard Bausch, James Carroll, Ralph McInerny, William X. Kienzle, and--of course--the ever prolific Father Andrew Greeley, to name but a few.

We tend to think of authors as Catholic for one of two reasons. Either they take Catholicism as their topic, or they approach their stories with a "Catholic" sensibility. …